The multi-tasking paradox

Multi-tasking – it’s the secret to working hard, while actually accomplishing very little, almost none of it well. Some companies actually make it a job requirement: “Must be capable of multi-tasking in a fast-paced environment with constantly changing priorities.” I guess that sounds much better than “Must be capable of surviving in disorganized chaos.”

I have a client in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s hard to imagine these always-connected folks taking a shower in the morning without their Blackberries and laptops. While having conversations with them, their eyes invariably wander to the little screens on signals at irregular intervals. Every so often you hear, “Excuse me, I have to take this one.” Yes, even on a Sunday night while having dinner with a CEO! Once done, the common refrain is, “Where were we?”

That’s the general theme of multi-tasking; people are always trying to find out where they were on the issue at hand. Once they figure it out, they often get interrupted again, and the cycle repeats.

The typical meeting is often a circus with people reading and responding to e-mails and phone calls, while pretending to participate. It’s usually necessary to repeat for those who were concentrating too hard on something else at the wrong moment. I can’t help but wonder how well they understand some of the things to which they’ve agreed.

One day, I was thoroughly stunned and pleased. I was doing a three-hour training session and wondering how I would get through it. At the very beginning, the VP of operations announced, “This is really important! Therefore, I’m declaring this a tops-down meeting. All cell phones and laptops are off, not on vibrate, but off.” Everyone complied.

What a miracle! I suddenly had the full attention of about 30 absolutely brilliant people. They became normal, attentive and relaxed. The resulting exchange was incredibly fruitful – old-time productivity, so to speak.

I can’t imagine why they would ever want to have a meeting that wasn’t “tops-down.” The typical meeting that goes on for several hours would be complete in half an hour or less with far less stress.

It’s not just meetings where these wonderful technologies can cause severe productivity losses. In fact, let’s take this out of high tech, because the disease has spread to many industries.

Let’s say you’re a lawyer, and you’re trying to revise a rather complicated contract for a client. You review it to get it set in your mind. All of a sudden, your phone rings, and you take the call. Someone wants information and you take care of it. Then you notice you have 12 new e-mails, which you handle next. You have to respond to three of them, and one requires some research.

Now you’re done, and it’s back to the contract. “Where was I?” It’s been a while, and you decide to review it again, just to make sure you’ve got it right. You’ve just about finished, and your boss calls. Another client needs something right away. So you drop the contract project after not really having done anything for that client, and you repeat the same or a similar cycle with another project. This can happen a number of times a day.

Should you care to do an actual time study, you may find that projects that require only an hour or two of actual work can take a week, a month or even more to actually complete.

All of these new technologies were supposed to make us more productive. Why are they working the other way?

Interestingly, the laws of productivity have never changed, despite our technological advances. The secret to getting things done is still uninterrupted concentration.

Communications have become too easy. Now people don’t have the discipline to collect their thoughts before interrupting another person or a group. When we want to know something, we want to know it now. It’s not unusual to call the same person a number of times a day, when only one properly organized phone call or meeting would have worked. We’ve effectively multiplied our interactions, making them far less productive.

If you find yourself saying, “Where was I?” frequently, shut a few things off. You might find you’ll get a lot more done.

The secret is to use these powerful tools effectively instead of getting used by them.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; fax 603-894-6539;;